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Nov 9, 2009

After the NT intervention: violence up, malnutrition up, truancy up

The latest, and arguably most comprehensive findings, on progress in the Northern Territory intervention are damning of its effectiveness and extremely disappointing, says Jon Altman.

It is the nature of ‘national emergencies’ that if they drag on for too long the media and public lose interest in them and the state that has promulgated the moral panic to allow draconian interventions will quietly alter the discourse and hope that the issue dissipates and costs no votes.

Given this standard scenario the posting of the latest government progress report on the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) Intervention on the FaHCSIA website on Thursday 22 October 2009 is truly remarkable. This is a report developed by a number of agencies, but it does not present the Intervention with the positive and sugary governmental spin to which the Australian public has become accustomed.

The NTER Intervention is now called Closing the Gap Northern Territory so the discourse is being altered; and the report was posted very quietly, but this is hardly surprising because findings in it are damning of its effectiveness.

The reporting is in two parts, the first overviewing measures, and the second providing statistical information on progress, measure-by-measure. It is the second report that is of greatest interest because for the first time ever some information is provided for 2006–07 (pre-Intervention) and for 2007–08 and 2008–09 (post-Intervention).

This second report covers 83 pages and is detailed and not all measures are given multi-year comparative coverage. But for those that are, some of the findings are extremely disappointing. For example:

On health, child health care referrals are down, as are specialist audiological and dental follow ups from referrals and reported child malnutrition is up despite the 85 licenced stores, the 15,000 BasicsCards and the $200 million income managed.

On education, total enrolments and school attendance rates are marginally down despite the school breakfast and lunch programs and more and more police are working as truancy officers.

On promoting law and order, alcohol, drug and substance abuse incidents are all up (p.32–33); domestic violence related incidents are up (p.33); and breaches of domestic violence orders are up (p.33) despite a far greater police presence. The most disturbing data are contained in Table 4.4.1 on p.35 which reports personal harm incidents reported to police: all categories are up except for sexual assault reports that are slightly down.

A number of observations can be made about these findings. First and foremost they are comparative pre- and post-Intervention in prescribed communities, they are not comparative with any other group in Australian society so it is hard to say how relatively bad outcomes are, all that is clear is that where time series information is provided almost without exception things have gotten worse.

Second, the quality of the report is highly variable so in some key areas like land reform and especially welfare reform and employment there is the standard reporting of current outputs and no comparative analysis. And in the area of income quarantining there is still fraught methodology so it is store operators rather than customers that are surveyed, so while 68.2 per cent of store operators report more healthy food purchased, it is unclear if this ‘more’ is in dollar terms or quantity; and who is doing the purchasing? Interestingly, store operators report no change in tobacco purchase.

It is notable that there has been no serious coverage of this report in The Australian newspaper, the unrelenting champion of the Intervention which raises serious questions about its journalistic integrity and/or editorial censorship. The rival Fairfax media has given the report some coverage, for the first time on 31 October 2009 over a week after its posting.

The ministerial office response to questions about these poor outcomes has been that the negative comparisons reflect better state surveillance of Aboriginal subjects and their misdemeanours. This might explain the statistics, but surely not the deteriorating outcomes.

The Rudd government must be commended for the efforts its bureaucracy, in partnership with the NT government, is investing in rigorously and transparently monitoring the effectiveness of Intervention measures. But there is far too little investment being made in analysing why things are not improving. Fruitful areas for policy investigation might include the following.

First, can sustained race-based measures really deliver substantive equality as recently asked by Sarah Burnside. It might be time for the Rudd government to demonstrate some decisiveness on this issue, instead of look for tricky techno-legal avenues to make the Racial Discrimination Act’s tolerance of special measures comply with Intervention measures on which its own agencies are reporting poor or negative progress.

Second, can top down statistical goals, even if endorsed by COAG, ensure outcomes if not negotiated with the purported subjects of the neoliberal state’s improvement project? The government’s own research advisory agency the Productivity Commission raised this question as COAG was signing off on the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (Closing the Gap). This locks in an approach agreed by the Commonwealth and States and Territories for the next decade, conveniently but unfortunately during an inter-regnum when there is no national Indigenous representative organisation with whom to negotiate.

The Rudd Government should seriously consider the Productivity Commission’s advice on what works: partnerships, bottom up rather than top down approaches, good governance — including by governments — and sustained support on an equitable needs basis.

I am in agreement with the Productivity Commission. It is imperative to concentrate on what has, and continues, to work; to support success and develop and replicate its key features. It is essential to engage with the reality of Indigenous heterogeneity of both circumstances and aspirations and tailor state approaches to fit. There is too much searching for technical statistical solutions to deeply entrenched and very human problems of disadvantage. Such approaches will not accurately measure, let alone fix, what matters, the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

The latest, and arguably most comprehensive findings, on progress in Northern Territory prescribed communities are of great concern especially given the significant $ billion plus public investment. These findings resonate worryingly with American political scientist Murray Edelman’s sage observations decades ago about ‘words that succeed and policies that fail’. And this is just in the Northern Territory, what about the rest of Australia?

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17 thoughts on “After the NT intervention: violence up, malnutrition up, truancy up

  1. james mcdonald

    I believe domestic violence was the central reason for the original Intervention, wasn’t it?
    If D.V. is up then the program is an abject failure, no matter whether any other incidental benefits have occurred.

  2. Graeme Lewis

    Professor, you would know well that there are “Lies, Lies and damn statistics!”

    The issue about the stats outlined in the 83 page report, is that they reflect the counting that has been enabled by having so many more people on the ground (whose only task is to collect statistics).

    Regardless of these statistics, which lead you to the conclusion that “things have gotten worse,” the facts on the ground, as anyone on the ground will attest, is that in many many of these communities, “things” have actually improved markedly. If only Govts would get busy to build some housing for which the money ($672 million) has been long allocated, some really meaningful “things” might really start to happen.

    The fact is that in the last 23 months, there has been a total lack of will to do anything, while even stopping doing a lot of things that used to just happen before the intervention. Repairs to housing and infrastructure used to be scheduled and ongoing, and even some new houses used to get built, but since November 2007, all that stopped – or at best slowed.

    What happened in November 2007?? I wonder!! I wish I could forget.

  3. Liz45

    JAMES MC. Hi James. I thought the main reason was the horrific sexual abuse, and lots of pedophiles abusing kids etc. Probably less than in the rest of the country. Can’t see the shock jocks sitting back while the Army invades the North Shore, or the West or perhaps the Illawarra. I can just see them coming down Mt Ousley in a convoy? In recent times there’s been priests, brothers and lay people charged with sexual abuse in a school(Bathurst?). I don’t recall them losing their home or having their incomes quarantined. It was unnecessary and racist. Women are spending heaps of money getting taxis to the big towns or cities like Darwin and Alice Springs to buy their food etc. What an absolute nonsense is that?

    I watched Message Stick on the ABC yesterday. It was on the Intervention(or invasion) and was very informative. Worth watching it on the ‘net. The resentment towards it far outweighed any positive effects. One woman said the quarantining was positive for many, and I understood her reasons, but there are many in the broader community who are pretty hopeless with money, but nobody suggests that their incomes be quarantined? I recall hearing a discussion(perhaps on Background Briefing, Radio National – several yrs ago now) and the subject was a voluntary assistance program with budget planning, bill paying etc and was most effective. The women spoke in a very positive way about it – they wanted it to continue – they were involved in the whole decision process, not locked out of it like Howard and now Rudd are doing. Guess what, they stopped it after 3 months or so?? How dumb was that?

    GRAEME – There’s an interview on the World Today(ABC Radio) of several months ago re aboriginal housing. There was a report that was written after several years of an investigation into aboriginal housing. It pointed to the shoddy workmanship in too many instances; eg, a light switch on an arcitrave, a light bulb in the middle of the room, but no wiring between them? No adequate facilities in the kitchen to prepare food. No locks on doors, poor sanitation etc and in many areas, garbage facilities are either poor or non-existent. I think, that in too many cases, ‘short cuts’ are made, and the contractors pocket the profits? Been going on for years.
    I watched a documentary on ABC a few yrs ago re health in the Kimberly region. At times there’s up to 15 or more to a house. The houses were only 3 roomed, not three bedrooms – just 3 rooms. They were appalling! People sleeping in shifts. How can kids be OK to attend school under those circumstances, or with bad ears etc?
    There’s only 500,000 aboriginal people in the whole country. What is their (govts)problem? There’s been 108 yrs since Federation, and we’re still discussing these aspects of need. Appalling!

  4. Ben Harris-Roxas

    @James McDonald I think the original justification was child sexual assault, with selective reference to the Little Children are Sacred Report and based, at least in part, on the From a Hand Out To Hand Up trial by the Cape York Institute.

    Brough’s Original Press Release (still as close to a plan as has been publicly documented on the Intervention):

    Little Children are Sacred Report:

    Cape York Institute Report:

  5. SBH

    And just how is attendance in Jenny Macklin’s pilot schools I wonder?

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Maybe we could try something radical and treat aboriginal people like grown ups instead of the idiot cousin that has to be hidden in the back room.

    The Insight report of the housing situation a few weeks ago was sickening but it was Jack Thompson in the Arnhem lands who seemed to be doing the best deal.

    Working with people to build their own homes to suit the conditions for 30% of the cost of the brick veneerals we want to impose on people that are not fit for human habitation and never have been.

    I said in June 2007 that this was a crap plan because it didn’t address the real problems and was racist.

    No point telling a drunk not to drink without having a drunk tank to dry out in.

    No point telling a battered wife to leave if their is no shelter – and Brough had them all closed down I believe.

    No point telling a housewife and mother she is too useless to handle her own money because sure and hell she will become too useless.

    Without a treaty and absolute recognition of equality we will continue to treat the indigenous people of this coutnry like fools and that is a disgrace.

  7. jungarrayi

    I live in on a “Prescribed Area”. From my perspective all this talk and propaganda and counter propaganda misses a fundamental point. The Intervention, as it was so deftly put by Pat Turner at the beginning: “is the final nail in the coffin of Aboriginal self-determination”.
    The dissempowerment of these remote communities and the stigmatisation of our societies by a multi pronged ethnocentric assimilationist attack is staggering.
    All the talk about Closing the Gap etc. is like trying to fix the roof instead of fixing the foundations.
    Jon Altman has been here, he knows what he is talking about. He certainly makes more sense to us than Minister Macklin.

  8. Nadia David

    I think Graeme has raised a central point which I’m disappointed the good Professor has glossed over with one sentence. Stats are meaningless without context. An increase in reported DV, sexual assault, drug use etc doesn’t mean the acts have increased, just the reporting. We don’t really know anything without a context.

    When NSW introduced comprehensive DV legislation in the early 1990s, then followed it up a few years ago with sweeping changes to force police and DoCS to react to DV more aggressively, DV stats went up by almost a quarter. Does that mean there was a quarter more DV? No. It meant that DV was being detected and dealt with more.

    While the Intervention has effectively lumbered to a halt and is now wallowing in its own filth, it would be incredibly lazy, especially for a Professor, to just rely on stats to paint the picture so many people want to paint. Remember, there was NO ONE in some of these places to even count the incidences of violence and neglect before 2007, so it’s hardly suprising that the stats have gone up.

    Let’s leave reliance on bald stats to the Daily Telegraph and take a more nuanced view of the Intervention than that taken so far.

  9. Rena Zurawel

    In my previous post I was right. Too much administration, too many commissions, reports, discussions,advisory agencies and the whole army of bureaucrats, for whom lucrative jobs were created in the first place, cannot come to basics. Indigenous people of Australia are as much human beings as the rest of Australian population. Their needs are just the same as the needs of any other humans. They need the same infrastructure as people living in townships and other urban areas.
    Belting up young petrol sniffers will never solve the problem.
    (That was one of those infamous ‘projects’)
    The Aboriginal settlements need all the facilities available to the rest of our community.
    Number 1. It should be unconditional access to EDUCATION for every member of the community. I do not support forcing children, or penalising their parents for truancy, to attend the classes. Teachers should be highly qualified not only in methodology but also in developmental psychology ( not based on Freud). Schools should be attractive enough to encourage people to come. With my considerable teaching experience both in Europe and in Australia, I dare say that something is very far from being perfect in Australian education system. Schools should have more prestige here. And the teachers should be better trained.
    Number 2. Access to all other facilities: education institutions for adults, and community groups with ‘something to do’; transport, contact with the ‘outside worls’, shops.
    Number 3. Promoting indigenious languages, culture and many useful traditions Aboriginal communities should be proud of; it is not only painting and dream time- many elders keep wonderful secrets in herbal medicine, tracking or animal husbandry, even weather forecast. We could help them being useful not only to their own community.
    As long as we treat the indigenous people as if they were nasty kids, to say the least, and we are not prepared to educate them and at the same time help them to preserve their identity,
    no State or Federal money will ever help to solve the problem.
    At the moment we are trying a band aid solution to treat the effects of centuries neglect rather than cure the illness at its core.
    We will also have to check the definition of ‘preventive measures’ – preferably civilised ones.

  10. Bob Durnan

    I do like how you do that. You are so right.
    Bob D